Monday, May 31, 2010

Hair Trigger

This is a poem that my mother wrote sometime in the late fifties or early sixties.

“My Hair”

I oil it, boil it –
Cream it, steam it,
Dye it, tie it -
Stroke it, poke it –
Brush it, crush it,
Tint it, glint it –
Curl it, hurl it,
Wash it, squash it -
Style it, file it.
And how does it look
When I finally stop?
That’s it, you’re right –
Like the end of a mop!

My mother’s hair was the abiding bane of her existence, and when I was a child my mother’s obsession with my hair became the bane of my existence.   As is typical of most women down through the centuries, those born with curly hair harbor a burning desire for straight hair, and those born with straight hair would do almost anything for curly hair.  This has always completely baffled me.

My dad had beautiful thick black curly hair when mom met him and she loved his hair.  He spent his whole life trying to comb the curl out of his hair and had more or less succeeded by the time he died at the age of 85.  Mom’s hair was completely straight and so she always coveted curly hair.  She tried every product she could get her hands on to give herself those elusive curls.  She described the color of her hair as “mousy brown,” and in later years, she dyed it to cover the gray and chose the color “ash blond,” which sounded really exotic but was in reality very close to mousy brown. 

Naturally since mom had struggled with her own hair for so many years, she wanted my curved hair to be curly and so I was sent to a succession of beauty parlors (run by church ladies on their closed-in porches or in their finished basements).  I always trotted in with a picture of some model from the Sears catalog or a photo from a magazine of the latest teen idol and the hairdresser always did the same thing – a pixie cut with really short bangs (the name Mamie Eisenhower still makes me wince). Then there were the dreaded permanents – stinky and awful!  I loathed beauty parlors.

When Toni Home Permanents were invented my mom was their ideal target market.  She loved home permanents – and I can still remember the feel of that cold lotion on my scalp (dripping down the back of my neck) and the awful stench.  The little papers and the curlers, the stench!  The pulling, the yanking, the stench!  Part of the instructions with these home perms included leaving the ghastly stuff on for a period of time, preferably under a hair dryer – but we did not have a hair dryer so we knelt on the floor in the kitchen and (God’s truth!) stuck our heads into the heated oven.

Before Christmas one year when I was about nine or ten, dad teased mom and me ceaselessly about how he was giving us a present that we two could share.  This had us completely baffled – because of course I was a kid who liked horses and, well, mom wasn’t.  We tried to pry this secret out of dad for weeks – he was as silent as the Sphinx (eyes twinkling merrily).

Come Christmas morning – at long last our mysterious present was ready to be opened.  Mom and I tore into the wrappings of this medium sized box and found - a hair dryer!!!  It was one of the early versions made for home use – it was pink plastic, and it had a long pink hose connected to an elastic edged pink plastic cap.  Mom and I were in seventh heaven – and the oven returned to its original function for the drying out and burning of foodstuffs.

In between the home permanents we went through a succession a bobby pins and clips and hair pins, metal hair curlers, plastic rollers, hair nets, even little red rubber things called “Spoolies.”   Pin curls and gloppy green sticky styling gel and trying to breathe in the middle of a cloud of foul smelling hair spray!  Simply writing about these things makes my scalp hurt!  I can still remember the feeling of trying to sleep with those lumpy awful instruments of torture on my head – trying desperately to find a comfortable spot on my pillow. 

When I was in junior high school one of my classmates, Rosalie, had a mom who was a hairdresser.  Rosalie was not in my crowd, but my mother decided that I should make an appointment for a haircut and a permanent just to grease the social wheels.  Rosalie was thrilled and the appointment was set.  I dragged in my usual photo of the casual slightly wavy pixie cut, and told Rosalie’s mom that I did not want my hair to end up being “too curly.”

Rosalie’s mom set to work.  Rosalie hovered around, and even her dad made an excited appearance to bring me some special chocolate bars (Heath bars which I did like not back then and have never liked since) – the whole family was so very pleased to meet dear Rosalie’s new friend.

When Rosalie’s mom was done cutting and clipping and snipping and winding and perming and neutralizing and rinsing and drying and combing and fussing and spraying, she gave me my eyeglasses.  I looked at myself in the mirror in complete dismay as I beheld the tightest set of curls I had ever seen!  I was worse than a poodle!  Shirley Temple!   Harpo Marx!  It was all I could do to pay and choke out my thanks – I bolted out of that little shop of horrors and wailed all the way home.  I was having a complete meltdown by the time I stormed into the parsonage and encountered my mother, who was, of course, eagerly awaiting my return.

Even mom had to admit that my hair was too curly.  She calmed me down and said she would see what she could do with it.  She dug out her cheap dull hair scissors and her even cheaper (and duller) pair of thinning scissors and set to work, muttering and swearing under her breath.  She yanked and she cut and she pulled and she thinned.  I sat on a kitchen chair as she hacked away at those tight curls for well over an hour –the dull scissors caused her to end up with huge blisters on her fingers by the time she was satisfied with her handiwork and ushered me into the bathroom to peer at my new hairstyle.

I have to admit for probably the only time in her life my mom had pulled off a styling miracle.   The new version of the “do” was short, casual, amazingly even all the way around and only slightly curly.  My tears dried and I was able to hold my head high in school the next day – that is ,until Rosalie saw me.   “My God!” she exclaimed, “What happened to your hair?!”  I stuttered and stammered and tried to blame it on my mother (my recall of this part seems to be blessedly dim) but I do remember that Rosalie never spoke to me again.

Actually, my mom was allowed one more very different kind of hair miracle in her lifetime.  After years of dyeing her hair that mousy brown (I mean ash blond) she went several weeks past the time for a root touch-up and discovered that in her late forties, her hair had turned a lovely silver gray.  So she let the dye grow out and for the last years of her all too brief life, she had spectacularly beautiful silver hair.  This also afforded her the excuse to buy an entirely new wardrobe in blues and grays, instead of her usual pinks and browns.  She was ecstatic!

In the time since leaving my parents’ home I have grown my hair down past my waist, chopped all but my bangs off to 1/4", dyed my hair jet black as well as varying shades of purple – but most of all I have ignored my hair.   I have been in the thrall of trendy boutique style salons and I consider myself fortunate to have escaped from the crimping irons and Aqua Net of the eighties.

At the recommendation of a framing customer I tried out a new salon a few years back.  At this salon I was ushered into their hushed sanctuary and given a five page form to fill out about my hair routine, products and preferences.  I could not believe this questionnaire!  I wash my hair (lather, rinse, repeat) with whatever is on sale at the drugstore and then use some conditioner.  Then I try to remember to brush it before I leave the house.  That is my hair routine.  It was obvious that the time had come to grow my hair out yet again.  (I guess that is really my hair routine:  grow my hair until it is so long it is a literal pain in the neck and then have it chopped off, donate resulting pony tails to Locks of Love, and then start all over again!)

But now, lo these many years after her death, I find myself wondering every so often – what would my mom have thought of me with purple hair?   I am sure that mom would be really pleased that I have come full circle and found a “proper church lady” to do my hair and I like to think that she would at least be happy that I am paying some attention to my “crowning glory."

Cringe-worthy bangs, 1949